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Missing Ingredients in our Kitchens...
An Interview with Chef Kevin Mitchell

By Bob Bickell

Chef Kevin Mitchell, Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston It was during a seminar in Tucson with an independent restaurant association that I so clearly remember a comment by a prominent chef/owner that surprised me. He suggested that one of our challenges was to attract more members of the African-American community to work in our restaurants. I had never given it much thought and I always believed that almost everyone worked in the restaurant industry in one form or another.

There are lots of job descriptions in this business - one can be a cook, a chef, or a dishwasher, but an executive chef essentially runs the kitchen and that's probably the most sought-after (and prestigious) job in the independent sector. There is no question that restaurants offer a plethora of opportunities for so many, and in this regard the numbers speak for themselves. It's just that one classification of executive chefs that is so interesting and perhaps so challenging for women, African-Americans, and others.

Allow me to ask the basic question, and then we can move on. Why is it that such an overwhelming percentage of executive chefs in America happen to be of the Caucasian male variety (white guys)? I don't have the statistics, but it just seems like it's somewhere in the area of ninety-nine percent. Whatever the numbers might be, the word "overwhelming" is the proper description.

I had an opportunity to speak with chef Kevin Mitchell who is a Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston located at the Trident Technical College in Charleston. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, an active member of the ACF, and a founding father of the BCA (Bridging Culinary Awareness). The BCA's objective is to motivate urban challenged high school students and introducing them to the culinary arts as a viable career option. Member benefits include quality educational and employment resources, job coaching, mentoring as well as networking support with the goal of bridging culinary arts in the new millennium.

He is a dedicated and extremely passionate teacher who loves this industry and is totally dedicated to his students. He is a class act in every respect, and he did not shy away from answering my questions.

RR: You have been there - from the prestigious CIA to kitchens all over America. How much did the subject of race play a part in your journey?

Chef: I have always seen myself as a a chef who happens to be African-American. Of course, race has always played a part, but I choose not to go there. I was one of two African-Americans in my class at the CIA, so I was aware of the numbers. I can remember applying for a chef position after culinary school and the owner told me that I had to start by washing dishes. I took the job and worked my way up the ladder. I remember being a sous chef at a restaurant where the executive chef decided to leave. I wanted the job, and I knew that I was qualified, but they brought in an outside chef to fill the position. I was disappointed, but I stayed anyway. These things happen to all of us, and I refused to allow it to stop me from doing what I knew I could accomplish.

RR: Where are all the African-American executive chefs?

Chef: I basically wrote my senior thesis on this subject. It's a very complex issue, and I have dedicated myself to help young African-Americans to enter the industry, and while we have many notable success stories, we obviously have a long way to go. I believe in the theory of Chef Joseph Randell who was the founder of the "Taste of Heritage Foundation" that was conceived to provide exposure for African-Americans in the culinary world. He traced our lack of interest and participation to the racial unrest of the 1960's. The black revolution was in full swing, and it was a time when African-American's were looking for equal rights as well as returning to their African roots. Unfortunately, many African-Americans considered cooking more as servitude than as a profession. This thinking has been slow to change, and this is where I have chosen to get involved.

RR: We know there are many, many African-Americans now working in the food industry, but there is a dramatic difference in working the window at Burger King and running a kitchen in downtown Manhattan. What can you really do to develop more executive chefs rather than finding lower tier jobs for your students?

Chef: For a starter, our young people need more role models, and they need more direction. I consider myself a role model in this regard because I've been there and I did it. I take this very seriously, and I do everything in my power to teach the love and respect I have for this business. They need direction, and I give it to them. If they show-up late for class, they only do it one time. Being late is not acceptable in my world. A successful kitchen is a team thing, and you have to play by the rules or it will never work. The most important thing is to erase the association with servitude. The 1960's are long gone. It's time to enter this profession with pride and dignity. This has to be our message.

RR: At the end of the day, we know that achieving success in this business has to do with an unending passion and commitment to succeed. It's so much more than just a job.

Chef: You have to start with the inspiration. For me, it was my grandmother who taught me how to cook, and I believe that food brings people together. Food and cooking has always been a part of the African-American heritage. The talent is there, and the African-American influence on American cuisine is widespread. We just have to get our people to believe it. I miss the everyday challenge of working in a restaurant kitchen, but I love my new challenge, and thankfully, I'm not alone. It's critically important that we see more and more successful African-American chefs and owners. It's such a wonderful opportunity, and we absolutely must do more to get involved!

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